Imagine, if you will, a multiplex. You and your friends are scanning the marquee looking for a good time. Listed among the films playing are the historical action epic “Hero,” the vampire frightener “Let the Right One In” and the quirky, unconventional romantic comedy “Love Me If You Dare.” If you or your friends tend to flock toward any of these genres of movies, perhaps you’d enjoy trying one of these.
Except the ticket-taker has informed you that all three movies are “foreign films,” and your first impression of a “foreign film” is three hours of a Swedish family sitting around a dinner table talking about their feelings. You decide to pass on these risky ventures and go see something mediocre instead. It may not be the best movie you could’ve chosen, but at least everyone talks in English, right?
There is a continued insistence in the movie industry to lump all international movies into a single genre known as “foreign,” and this mindset has got to go. It’s a nonsensical, outdated and in many ways xenophobic concept, as though a film not made by Americans isn’t worthy of sharing their categorizations. “Foreign films” can still be dramas, comedies, fantasies or family-friendly, but you’d never know because they’re all stuffed into art-house cinemas and the same corner of the video store.
The word “foreign” in itself is misleading because it implies impenetrability; as in, the experience of viewing such a movie would surely alienate you. But film is supposed to be a universal language, right? You don’t need a degree in Spanish to be terrified by the Pale Man character in “Pan’s Labyrinth.” Movies are visual by definition, and our level of understanding shouldn’t depend on whether or not those visuals were created in our country.
But let’s assume that “foreign” is an acceptable way to categorize a film’s genre. Now, what makes a foreign film? According to the Motion Picture Academy’s rules for eligibility into the Best Foreign-Language Film Category, over half of the dialogue must be spoken in a language other than English. So what of this summer’s “Inglourious Basterds,” in which more dialogue is spoken in foreign languages (French, German and Italian) than in English?
Well, maybe that’s OK because the director, Quentin Tarantino, is American. We wouldn’t want to limit the audience for an American director’s movie just because not every line of dialogue is in English … unless that American director is Julian Schnabel and the film is the all-French “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” — it was classified as foreign.
And then there’s the strange, sad case of the Israeli drama “The Band’s Visit,” which has the dubious distinction of being labeled as both “foreign” and “not foreign enough.” The film has spoken dialogue in English, Arabic and Hebrew, and was submitted for consideration in the 2007 Best Foreign-Language Film category but deemed ineligible because over half of the dialogue was spoken in English. But because it’s so hard to tell which tongue is spoken more in the movie, the Academy determined this by counting each individual word. So despite the fact that the film was made in a different country by non-Americans, it was separated from other great, arbitrarily “foreign” films by a handful of English words.
And as those who have seen “The Band’s Visit” know, the English is spoken in order to bridge the communication gap between the Egyptian characters and the Israeli characters. The film was punished for trying to impart a message about cross-cultural understanding.
Look, it’s fine for a movie to embrace its own cultural heritage. In fact, that should be encouraged. But it’s not fine for us to define a movie strictly by its cultural heritage. A kung-fu crowd pleaser by Yimou Zhang (“House of Flying Daggers”) evokes the legends of ancient China by design, so we can say it’s a Chinese film. But we shouldn’t file it next to Roberto Benigni’s “Life Is Beautiful” at Borders and pretend the two are similar enough to be grouped together.
The Ann Arbor District Library has just about the best filing system I’ve seen when it comes to distinguishing international cinema. It has a “foreign language” section, but the movies are grouped according to their country of origin. Which makes sense, inasmuch as those who liked “The Band’s Visit” will be more likely to stumble on the also-excellent Israeli film “Waltz With Bashir.” But this system is still flawed. How, for example, could you ever hope to discover Ousmane Sembene’s “Moolaadé” unless you were already looking for a movie from the African nation Burkina Faso?
There’s a new movie called “The Baader Meinhof Complex” opening at the Michigan Theater this weekend. It’s a historical political drama about a ’70s-era German terrorist group that has been getting rave reviews. It’s also spoken in German. I haven’t seen it yet, but I plan to. If you see the movie, don’t think of it as a “foreign film.” Think of it as a film.